A World Awakened
By Kyle Dykstra
Outdoors International Membership Coordinator and owner of Arrowhead Archery in Nampa, Idaho.
In 2017, I met a woman who grew up in Boise, Idaho. Like most people in the region, she was aware of the variety of wildlife the state had to offer, yet living her entire life in the city left her with very limited, or simply no experience with it. The sister of a vegetarian and the daughter of folks that never hunted, her view of hunters wasn’t ideal, though not necessarily negative. There was a definitive lack of understanding. Why would someone want to kill an animal? Does it even taste that good? Do you only hunt for the trophy? These are some of the thoughts that she had and are so common among people with limited experience with hunters. The notion that wildlife conservation would not exist if it weren’t for hunters hadn’t ever crossed her mind until we met. As she began to spend more time around me, she’d ask questions and I’d try my best to answer them honestly, sometimes bluntly, but most importantly in a way that she could understand my passion for something so important to my life. Hunting in one way or another has changed every facet of my life. Where I live, what I do for fun, what I spend my money on, where I went to college, getting my degree in wildlife management, my career in the archery industry, and the food I put on my table.
Wildlife and wildlife conservation is more than hunting as a hobby to me. And through that lens, she was able to understand it in a way that spoke to her.
While I wasn’t there to convince her of anything or even try to get her to go elk hunting with me, naturally the curiosity of, “what could be so fun about it?”, led her to tag along with me on a day trip archery elk hunt toward the end of September. Admittedly her experience that day was like someone buying a lottery ticket for the first time in their life and winning. I know not every experience in the woods would be that way, but she got lucky.
As we hiked in, the first drainage I stopped to call had two bulls respond to my bugle. It was an area that burned that summer but had some new green growth and pockets of mature timber that survived the fire. The bulls were about three-quarters of a mile down the drainage, they seemed to me like they had cows with them so I told her we would have to go to them. Her eyes were wide and excitement was piqued at the sound of the first bugle she had ever heard from an elk in the wild. She eagerly agreed and down the hillside we went in hot pursuit. As I neared the area I thought the bulls would be, I located them again with some light cow calls. They were just over the other side of a finger ridge ahead of us. I knew we had to go down and up the other side to get on the opposite ridge where they were. I also knew we had to do it fast before they bed down or take off with the harem. She agreed, although she wouldn’t know any different. I welcomed her opinion with a smile, just happy she was enjoying the experience thus far.
On the drive up the mountain earlier in the day, I had in my mind that I would be hunting with someone who had never in her life taken to the woods as a predator. She wouldn’t know the little things in certain situations that experienced hunters take for granted. I explained to her that she should mirror what I do at all times. “If I sneak, you sneak”, I told her. “If I am talking loudly, you can talk loudly”, “If I run, you run”, “If I am careful where I place my feet, you do the same”. I explained to her that if we see a bull that is on his way to us, that she should stay about 30 yards behind me and find the nearest bush, sit next to it, pull her hat low on her forehead to reduce face shine from the sun and sit quietly and still.
As we took off down the ridge towards the bulls, I knew she might get overwhelmed, but I had at least given her a briefing on how to handle the ensuing situation. We made it about 30 yards before she noticed one of the bulls crest the ridge, heading right for us. Luckily, she noticed it before it saw us and I was able to get close to a tree where I’d have a good calling and shooting position. To my pleasant surprise, just like I asked her to, she stayed back, found a bush and sat next to it. I got a good look at the bull as it was coming down the hillside towards us, not even 200 yards away. He was a small 3×3, which was legal for that unit and with 2 days left in the season was looking pretty attractive. He hung up a little and I gave a single quiet cow call and that got him moving again. As that bull was coming in on a string, he abruptly stopped, and turned and wheeled back the way he came from. The wind was perfect, and I couldn’t figure out what happened so I desperately cow called to him again when another bull screamed a bugle from my right that I hadn’t seen. This one was a big mature 6 point. The only problem was that it was about 75 yards away and about 30 steps from crossing my scent cone. I was left with no choice but to watch that big bull walk until it hit my scent, stop, rip off one more bugle and turn back the way he came in a cloud of ash and dust.
In a moment that pretty much summed up my season and left me both glad for the experience yet frustrated at the missed opportunity, I looked over and saw her grinning from ear to ear, having just been 40 yards away from a 6 point bull bugling right in her face. It was a reminder to enjoy the bliss of the whole experience and be thankful that I get to see these wild creatures in such a surreal way.
We made the trek back to the pickup laughing and talking about what had just occurred. I asked her what her impression of the experience was and she couldn’t stop saying how cool it was to see the bulls so close.
I couldn’t agree more.
About an hour later we reached another spot I wanted to hunt, and sure enough a bull responded to my first cow call in the new area. I could tell he was close, maybe a quarter mile from our location, and I knew we had to get moving. A minute or so down the trail I wanted to get a better idea of where this bull was, so I cow called again. He immediately responded with a bugle and this time he was inside 200 yards. I knew he had been on his way since the first call. We moved into position and came across an overgrown logging road that hadn’t been used in maybe 20 years. I thought it would be a great location for us to set up, but the wind wasn’t ideal and I knew we would have to go maybe 50 more yards down the hill to get on this bull’s level. We moved as quietly as we could, and set up in a good shooting spot and waited. After a minute with no bull in sight, I wondered what had happened. I gave a quiet cow call and received no response. After waiting a few minutes I quietly cow called again and still heard nothing. As a last resort before I gave up on this spot, I bugled, then BAM. Immediately, he bugled back and was on his way, stomping in to 12 yards. Just like that, I had another six point right in front of me. I drew my bow and he stopped with his vitals just barely obscured. I held my draw until I could feel myself start to shake. I had to let down. The bull couldn’t see me, so my movement didn’t spook him. We stood like that, frozen in time, for another 30 seconds or so when he finally took a step. I drew my bow but through the thick timber I still had no shot. Holding my draw for another 30 seconds he again stepped, this time exposing a small spot just behind the shoulder. I let my arrow fly then heard a familiar thud, and saw the bull lunge forward and watched him crash for about 5 seconds through the timber. I heard him stop. I heard him breathe. I heard him fall.
In disbelief over what had just transpired I looked back to her as she had two thumbs up and the biggest smile I’d seen on her face in the time that I’d known her. I heard the bull fall, however we still gave him 30 minutes before we even started looking for blood. First, we walked over to where he stood at the shot, found my arrow coated with clean red blood. Then, we started tracking where he ran using the turned up earth from his hooves because of an odd lack of blood. Within 50 yards we stood over the dead animal that died from a perfect shot through the heart. She kneeled at his mane and ran her fingers through his fur. She reached her hand toward his chocolate-colored antlers feeling up the tines towards the ivory tips. She wasn’t sad, but was clearly emotional. She spent the next few hours with me as I quartered up the bull. Day quickly gave way to night as we broke it down, taking special care to keep the meat as clean as possible. She helped me remove the backstraps and held the game bags open as I filled them with usable meat, explaining what kinds of meals id make with the different pieces as I dropped them in. As a nurse, she was interested in seeing the heart and lungs so I removed them so she could inspect. She helped me hang the quarters in a tree that night and requested I set up a backpack so she could help pack him out the next morning.
I gladly obliged.
The first meal we made together from that harvest was spaghetti. As we talked about our hunt over dinner, she was amazed at how visceral this experience has been to her. This was the first time she’d ever eaten game meat. It was the first time seeing an animal like that in the wild. Unlike at a zoo, an animal that had likely very little contact with humans before. This is the first time eating meat that she held while it was still warm from the animals own metabolism. It was the first time she ate a meal that she had a true connection with, and could reflect on the experience associated with it. Few people are still experiencing this in the world today.
From this pragmatic approach to hunting and being taught the realities of wildlife conservation, she now understands it in a way that she previously never would have imagined. She now sees hunting through a lens only a select few shows on hunting television dare portray. With plans to take up archery, she is excited to practice throughout the year, and perhaps enjoy a similar experience for herself in the fall.
I believe experienced hunters often look down on “city people”, or those who don’t understand our lifestyle. We may be more inclined to talk about hunting and what it means to us with those who are already predisposed to like it, people such as friends or family. But if we care about the future of hunting we have a responsibility to do more. I think it’s important that we talk with those who see our world from an outsiders view. To educate those who might have a misunderstanding of what we stand for and represent. To not shun those with differing political opinions because we need them on our side. We need to show them the connections we have to our food, to conservation, and to our true nature as human beings; hunter gatherers. I promise you’ll find we are more alike than our media would like us to believe.
Our hunting tradition is constantly under threat by various interests. We need to remember that there’s a world full of people out there who simply don’t know the joy of hunting because no one ever took the time to teach them.